The Bangladesh government should agree to new trials meeting international standards for members of the former Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) accused of mutiny and murder, including 139 whose death sentences were upheld on 27 November, 2017, by the High Court, Human Rights Watch said today.
The court also upheld life sentences for another 146 people.
On February 25 and 26, 2009, members of the BDR mutinied against their commanding officers at the central Dhaka headquarters, killing 74 people, including 57 army officers. A number of women relatives of the officers were sexually assaulted. Human Rights Watch research has found that many of the accused were tortured in custody and most were denied access to proper representation.
"We have long said that the atrocities that took place during the mutiny need to be investigated and prosecuted, but this should not be done through unfair mass trials after the use of torture," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Particularly when the death penalty is involved, expediency cannot take priority over justice."
The BDR mutiny took place soon after the new Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina won elections in December 2008. Under great pressure from the army and amid fears of a coup, the government responded to the mutiny by rounding up nearly 6,000 members of the BDR. Many were tried in mass trials before closed military courts. A separate civilian prosecution team chose to try nearly 850 members of the BDR in a single mass trial in one courtroom.
In July 2012, Human Rights Watch released a report, "'The Fear Never Leaves Me': Torture, Custodial Deaths, and Unfair Trials after the 2009 Mutiny of the Bangladesh Rifles," which provided a detailed account of the mutiny and the authorities' response. Human Rights Watch documented serious abuses by the authorities in the aftermath, including at least 47 custodial deaths and widespread torture of BDR members by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and other security forces. The government has claimed that all deaths in custody were due to natural causes.
Human Rights Watch documented how the mass trials of hundreds of the accused left most without adequate counsel, adequate time to prepare a defense, or notice of the charges or evidence against them. Crucially, many made confessions under torture. The chief prosecutor claimed that no confession obtained under duress would be used in court, but legal teams eventually assigned to some of the cases showed Human Rights Watch documentation demonstrating that coerced confessions had been used as evidence.
"Families of those killed and injured in the mutiny need justice and closure, but the answer is not through flawed trials," Adams said. "True justice comes only through sound procedures that comply with the rule of law, and the families of the victims deserve better answers than this mass roundup."
The Bangladeshi authorities should establish an independent investigative and prosecutorial task force with sufficient expertise, authority, and resources to rigorously investigate allegations of human rights abuses after the mutiny. All those subject to unfair trials should be given a new trial, Human Rights Watch said.
The November 27 judgment was in response to an appeal of the trial judgment. As with those sentenced to death, the trials against the mutineers sentenced to life in prison were rife with due process concerns, including coerced confessions. Similarly, few of the accused sentenced to life in prison had access to lawyers or information about the case against them.
"The death penalty is a cruel and irreversible punishment that should never be used," Adams said. "Bangladesh should join the international movement to abolish it, particularly in cases like these in which suspects were tortured, nearly 50 died in custody, and due process failed."